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In early 2022, Prime Minister Mark Rutte issued a statement that could have a significant impact on Indonesia-Dutch relations: he deeply apologized for the Dutch behavior towards Indonesian people that occurred during the period of the Indonesian National Revolution 1945–1949. The apology was based on research by the Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal, Land, en Volkenkunde (KITLV), The Netherlands Institute of Military History (NIMH), and the NIOD Instituut voor Oorlogs, Holocaust, en Genocidestudies which found that the Dutch army carried out “excessive violence” in an effort to recolonize Indonesia during 1945–1949 and left 100,000 Indonesians dead. “We have to accept a humiliating fact,” Mark Rutte said at a press conference following the discovery (DW, 2022).
Such apology is one of the steps on Netherlands-Indonesia reconciliation since 1968 when the Netherlands renormalized bilateral relations with Indonesia. Before Rutte’s statement, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands also gave an apology statement in 2020 for “excessive violence” during the revolution era (Intan, 2020). Such a gesture of reconciliation has also been carried out by the Dutch by providing compensation to 18 widows whose husbands were killed in the massacre initiated by the Dutch army: 10 widows of the victims of the South Sulawesi Massacre and 8 widows of the Rawagede Massacre’s victims (DW, 2013).
The Dutch initiative to apologize for the actions they took 75 years ago is something that should be appreciated in the first place. Only few ex-colonial countries have expressed apologies for their colonialist behavior that harms the native of their colony. However, there are several questions surrounding the apology: is the apology enough? Or did the apology not actually address the main problem of the colonial dynamics that became a thorn in the flesh of Netherlands-Indonesia relations?
An apology is usually considered a morally commendable thing. With an apology, the perpetrator of certain bad deeds can express their regret towards the victim so that reconciliation and resolution between two parties will hopefully emerge. However, in the dynamics of international relations that are filled with political interests and state constituents, apologies can be a complicated matter.
This complex problem can be seen in the dynamics of Japan’s relationship with the countries that were attacked by it in the past. Japan has repeatedly apologized for its “past actions” to South Korea and China, but the sincerity of the apology is highly doubted by both countries. After all, Japan itself still respects war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine (Lind, 2013). There is no point in a thousand apologies if there is no genuine intention from the perpetrator to acknowledge the violence that occurred in the past and respect the feelings of the victim.
This can also be seen in the case of the Netherlands. It is true that the Netherlands has apologized for the “excessive violence” during the Revolutionary era, but — to quote former Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Hassan Wirajuda — why only for a period of five years (Purba, 2020)? Where did the apology for 130 years of colonialism — or 350 years if you count the VOC? Oh, is the Netherlands also willing to apologize for protecting war criminals and helping them to escape from Indonesia, like Raymond Westerling, the mastermind behind the South Sulawesi Massacre (de Moor, 1999)?
If you look at it, the Dutch’s apology to Indonesia is certainly not enough because the sincerity in the apology is questioned and there are many other things that are not included in the realm of the official Dutch’s apology. The problem is, will the apology itself be able to reach the word “enough”? It is because there is one more impact of the Dutch colonialism in Indonesia that might be difficult to be erased: its structural impact on the Indonesian society.
(Almost) Unforgivable: The Structural Impact
Colonialism always brings changes in the socio-economic structure of the local community in order to perpetuate the colonial’s power. To prevent any challenge to the power from the natives, colonial governments usually limits the power of the natives’ majority and granted socio-economic privileges to citizens of colonial origin (Europe) and a number of other social classes deemed loyal to the colonial government. Later, the system will be perpetuated by the post-independence rulers as a model to protect their own political interests (Yuda, 2021: 3).
The Dutch did not escape from creating this system in Indonesia. In the case study of social welfare security, the Netherlands provided adequate and premium access to health services and social security to European citizens, but only provided minimal services to indigenous people. Social welfare security stratification was also given based on profession, where military soldiers and civil servants get the privilege (Yuda, 2021: 4).
This system continued until the independence and the New Order period with a social security system that was limited to civil servants and the armed forces. Even after the Reformation period, the National Health Insurance (Jaminan Kesehatan Nasional or JKN) system still implements a stratified universalism system that sticks to a social security level based on the participant’s income and occupation. Of course, the system is continued by the current government because those who benefit from the system (civil servants and the armed forces) are the main proponents of the government’s agenda (Yuda, 2021: 5).
Thus, the system indubitably prevents the creation of social welfare as a whole for the sake of the government’s political interests. Who taught the government about such a system? The Dutch colonial government. Now, is the Netherlands ready to apologize for the continuation of this predatory system?
Conclusion: Help and Admit
Clearly, the Dutch’s apology is far from enough. There are many aspects of the Dutch’s apology that have not yet covered other events that have influenced the perception on the sincerity of the apology. Taking other things into account, the apology could also be considered not to address the main problem of the Dutch colonialism of Indonesia, namely the creation of predatory structures that continue to exist to this day.
However, the door of reconciliation has not yet and will never be closed. The Dutch could help Indonesia to mediate the conditions of the structure that he created earlier, such as providing educational assistance to Indonesian youth to instill anti-clientelism and anti-corruption thoughts as the Netherlands currently adheres to. However, most importantly, the Dutch must admit that what it had been doing for hundreds of years in Indonesia is an utter mistake.
de Moor, J. (1999). Westerling’s oorlog: Indonesië, 1945–1950 : de geschiedenis van de commando’s en parachutisten in Nederlands-Indië, 1945–1950. Balans.
DW. (Augustus 9, 2013). Belanda Ganti Rugi 10 Janda Indonesia. DW. https://www.dw.com/id/belanda-ganti-rugi-10-janda-indonesia/a-17009616.
DW. (February 18, 2022). Mark Rutte: Saya Mohon Maaf Kepada Bangsa Indonesia Atas Nama Pemerintah Belanda. DW. https://www.dw.com/id/mark-rutte-saya-mohon-maaf-kepada-bangsa-indonesia/a-60824621.
Intan, G. (March 10, 2020). Berkunjung ke Indonesia, Raja Belanda Minta Maaf Atas Kekerasan Masa Lalu. VOA Indonesia. https://www.voaindonesia.com/a/berkunjung-ke-indonesia-raja-belanda-minta-maaf-atas-kekerasan-masa-lalu/5322773.html.
Lind, J. (November 21, 2013). Sorry I’m Not Sorry: The Perils of Apology in International Relations. Foreign Affairs. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2013-11-21/sorry-im-not-sorry.
Purba, K. (March 18, 2022). The Dutch apology to Indonesia is half-hearted, but it’s OK. The Jakarta Post. https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2022/03/18/the-dutch-apology-to-indonesia-is-half-hearted-but-its-ok.html.
Yuda, T. K. (2021). The limits of healthcare reforms in Indonesia: Interrogating the Dutch colonial legacies’ influence within the logic and principles of welfare. International Journal of Social Welfare. 1–12.
Risyad is the President of ISAFIS. A third-year international relations student at Universitas Indonesia, he is known for his interest in defense and security issues. Nevertheless, he has a keen interest in history topics, especially contemporary world history.